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Video available hereDreams 'n' screams

This Santa couldn't feel any warmer after inner-city kids treated to holiday flight

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NOW I know exactly how Elvis felt! And I'm talking here about Elvis in his prime, not overweight, white-jumpsuit Elvis.

I'm talking about hugs and kisses from hundreds of adoring fans who are overcome with excitement at the very sight of your sexy red-velvet suit and about TV cameras thrust in your sweat-stained face -- all while you're thundering through icy skies on a luxury jet at about 26,000 feet.

But that's just the kind of thing you have to learn to cope with when you agree to put on the big red suit and play Santa Claus on the fifth annual North Pole Express.

For many inner-city kids, this annual holiday flight -- organized by the Winnipeg Airports Authority, Signature Vacations and Skyservice Airlines -- is their first chance to set foot on a real airplane.

On Tuesday, about 160 wildly excited kids from Pinkham and Dufferin schools were bused to the airport and squeezed onto a Boeing 757 for a chance to make some serious joyful noise and meet Santa.

Last year, I rode along as "The World's Largest Elf." This year, I was upgraded to Santa. My elf shoes were filled yesterday by my buddy Bob Cox, who also happens to be the publisher of this newspaper and, if you want to get technical, my boss.

As novice elves go, Bob looked pretty cool, decked out in a red vest, billowy green pants, a pouffy shirt, a hat with a jingle bell at the end and genie-style footwear.

In the interests of unbiased journalism, I interviewed several kids about whether they believed my boss was, in fact, an elf from the North Pole.

Ten-year-old Edith Fosseneuve made a frowny face and chirped: "No, I think he's a volunteer. He looks like a pirate." (Editor's note: He did.)

Madison Keating, 8, a Grade 3 student at Pinkham, was even more skeptical, pointing to a critical costume error. "Well," she scolded Bob in her most severe tone, "if you are an elf, where are your pointy ears???"

If I had to sum up yesterday's flight in a single word, that word would be LOUD! It would not surprise me to learn the sound waves emanating from our flight demolished buildings as far away as Grand Forks.

It is a North Pole Express tradition that the kids are restricted to making noise on two very specific occasions, namely (1) when the plane is moving, and (2) when the plane is not moving.

The excitement began for this fidgety band of first-time fliers when they spilled off their buses and were greeted outside the airport by Jazz and Haley, two very real and very cute reindeer from the zoo.

"The first time I saw it (one of the reindeer) I thought it wasn't real," Quiara Francisco, 8, a Grade 3 student at Pinkham, squeaked, her eyes as wide as dinner plates. "But when I got close -- IT WAS REAL!!!"

Then the kids were off to the observation lounge for a healthy lunch, including carrots doled out by Winnipeg Blue Bomber star Matt Sheridan, who is roughly the size of a convenience store.

"You don't want carrots?" Matt would say in mock surprise, then quickly add: "Dude, how many carrots do you want?"

Then the child in question, his plate now heaping with pizza and carrots, would wander off, sidle over to a classmate and casually whisper, "Pssst! Do you want some of my carrots???"

After lunch, the kids were issued red-and-green felt antlers and herded through airport security. It is difficult, using mere words, to describe how funny it is to watch 160 tiny children, antlers bobbing on their heads, solemnly marching through security, but I will try: It is very, very funny!

If you could witness this sight and not wet your pants with laughter, then you are made of much sterner stuff than I am.

On board, I am pleased to report that everything once again went off with all the calm and precision of a European soccer riot.

The kids were kept busy with a host of fun holiday activities, including (a) folding in-flight magazines into paper airplanes; (b) lifting the arms of their seats up and down; (c) seeing how far back their seats would recline; and (d) hitting the call button and yelling, "What happens if I press this?"

Shortly after takeoff, I slipped out of my seat and, assisted by flight attendant Shannon Warner, ducked behind a curtain in the back of the plane to get into costume. If you have never had a flight attendant help you dress up as Santa in mid-air, then I do not think you have truly flown first class. I'm just saying.

Moments later, Capt. Jim Raleigh waggled the plane to announce Santa's arrival. And that's when Santa, Bob the elf, and a huge sack of candy canes made their grand entrance. We felt like rock stars.

From then on, everything was a blur. A blur of wide-eyed children giving heartfelt hugs. A blur of kids holding out crumpled Christmas lists. And pulling on Santa's beard. And loudly asking tough questions: "What are the names of your reindeer?" "Is that your real beard?" "What's your elf's name?"

One thing Santa does remember clearly is striding boldly down the aisle, roaring "Ho Ho Ho!" into a TV camera at the top of his lungs and -- WHAM! -- bashing his head on a little movie screen suspended from the ceiling.

"OH NO!" a flight attendant squealed with laughter, "SANTA HAS A CONCUSSION!"

But Santa was just fine. And, like everyone else on the plane, the only thing he was suffering from was a severe case of the warm fuzzies.

"For some of our kids, this is the highlight of their Christmas, even more than Christmas Day," Pinkham's energetic principal Lionel Pang told me. "This whole thing makes you feel wonderful about the generosity people have for the children of the inner city."

So you can work up quite a sweat after several hours inside a sweltering red-velvet suit, but in the end, as any Santa will tell you, it's one of the coolest places on Earth.

Don't believe me? Then listen to six-year-old Joseph Malo of Pinkham School who, when asked about the best part of the whole day, just smiled and softly said: "I liked all the parts!"

Thank you, Joseph. Thank you very much!

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 19, 2007 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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